Redemption a modern morality mystery

Published in the Courier Mail 5 Feb 05

I DO NOT know Dennis Ferguson and I find his crimes abhorrent. However, as I watch the events that have unfolded in the past week, I am struck by an uneasy thought.

Quite simply, as a society we have nothing to offer the Dennis Ferguson’s of this world.

We have found him guilty of crimes, sentenced him to a jail term, which he served, and then released him into a society that is determined to run him out of every place he moves into.

The whole sorry situation and the ensuing discussion, is raising more and more questions, with fewer and fewer answers being proffered.

What do we expect of our justice system? What do we expect of those who have offended against society?

Do we ever allow them to re-join society? And if so, how do we assist that process?

Society has the right to mete out punishment to citizens who commit a crime. When that punishment is finished, society then has the responsibility to offer them the chance to rejoin society as law-abiding citizens. But it’s not that easy, is it?

In this case, for instance, there is the completely understandable fear of having someone who has been convicted of pedophilia moving into your neighbourhood. What parent wouldn’t be concerned? And rightly so. The first instinct of a parent should be to protect their child.

The sad fact remains that there will always be those in our society who would try to harm our children. When we don’t know who they are, it is difficult to protect our family. Forewarned, however, is forearmed.

The very fact that society knows of Ferguson’s past means we are provided with a greater protection from him than from others, whom we are unaware of, who may be similarly tempted.

Furthermore, we have the dilemma at the inadequacy of society’s punishment. This is well expressed by Jerry Brown, Mayor of Oakland, California, when he said: “Prisons don’t rehabilitate, they don’t punish, they don’t protect, so what the hell do they do?”

Quite simply, we don’t know what to do with offenders and we don’t seem to know what to do for them.

We pride ourselves on our moral progressivism. However, we are becoming less equipped to deal with situations that we still find morally repugnant.

By re-defining sexual behaviour as innate, rather than chosen, we have condemned ourselves to a powerlessness that we never anticipated.

An English editor, Cyril Connolly, said: “Those of us who were brought up as Christians and have lost our faith have retained the sense of sin without the saving belief in redemption. “This poisons our thought and so paralyses us in action.”

Herein lies a clue to what has happened collectively to our society.

Once founded on Christian values of individual responsibility for our actions, and the desire for righteousness, society has now discarded such “antiquated” notions in favour of moral relativism, particularly with regards to sexual behaviour.

We’re quite happy for people to express themselves however they want, even defending their right to do so by arguing that it’s “just the way they are”. That is, until someone crosses the line and engages in behaviour we all still find morally unacceptable — and punishable by law.

HOWEVER, once these perpetrators have served their time, we have a problem.
Because we have championed inherent behaviour, we cannot even begin to contemplate helping the offender’s transition back into society.

Such a transition requires that we help someone not only recognise why his or her behaviour is wrong, but that we also empower them to change.

How are we to do that if we think it’s impossible for a person to change? Failure to address these issues means that we have condemned them to more than a jail sentence. We have condemned not only them, but also their victim, and our society, to a future trapped by the past.

Perhaps the debate we’re having about what to do with Ferguson is not the only debate we need to engage in. Perhaps we also should be discussing how to discover what it is that changes the human heart, for only then will we really start to unravel such a complex issue.